Eyes on the Street: History of Oakland Chinatown’s Barnes Dance
Unlike numerous pedestrian tragedies that go unnoticed and unmitigated, when a man was killed at the corner of 8th Street and Webster Street in Oakland’s Chinatown in 2002, the community banded together to get a large federal grant to transform not only the dangerous intersection, but the entire neighborhood.
The man who was killed was the father of a board member of Asian Health Services (AHS), a non-profit health care provider in Oakland; the organization vowed to do something about it.
AHS Planning and Development Manager Julia Liou spearheaded the project, eventually convincing policy makers on the city council to support changes. While AHS had never done pedestrian or transportation advocacy in the past, Liou emphasized the public health benefits of safer pedestrian amenities.
Former council member Danny Wan became a champion of the project and helped convince the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce that safer pedestrian conditions would bring more foot traffic, which would improve business.
The only resistance they encountered was from City of Oakland traffic engineers, who initially expressed concerns over liability if a driver got frustrated waiting for the all-red cycle and mowed down a pedestrian.
“I don’t think there were any engineers then who were willing to think outside the box,” said Liou. “Public Health, planning? They just wanted to move as many cars through the intersection as quickly as possible.”
When a trial at 8th and Webster was finally implemented (transportation study, PDF), Liou and project leaders were vindicated
The project was such a success, Liou, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and Councilmember Wan sought federal funding for an expanded scope of work called Revive Chinatown (PDF). They contracted with CHS Consulting to lead community workshops and craft the project design around imagery and principles relevant to the stakeholders, such as the Qiling good-luck charm on project signage.
In 2004, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission awarded a $2.2 million dollar federal grant to Revive Oakland to complete the transformation of four intersections in Chinatown. They re-timed traffic signals to give exclusive crossing time for pedestrians (23 seconds by this author’s recent count), built pedestrian-scale lighting, bulb outs, directional way-finding, pedestrian countdowns, and high visibility crosswalks and diagonals with a design from the Ching Dynasty.
While Liou couldn’t convince merchants to support removing an entire traffic lane and widening the sidewalks, she was pleased with the outcome.
“It was about telling the community that we want to improve the area, make it more pedestrian friendly, more viable economically, and a more vital destination.”